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The Storied Life of Rockefeller Center Elevator Operator Eugene Bullard: Boxer, Jazz Musician, and War Hero

By Claudia FisherFeb 22 2023
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On December 22, 1959, the Today Show aired a story with particularly close ties to home: an interview with Eugene Bullard, an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center, where the show was filmed. Bullard was starting to gain recognition for his decorated past after being featured in Eleanor Roosevelt’s column, My Day, but the trailblazing war hero’s lesser-known life before, between, and after World War I and II only adds to his achievements.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Eugene Bullard’s career path was far from linear, beginning as a machine gunner in France — his first enlisted role — and ending as an elevator operator in New York City. Over his lifetime from 1895 to 1961, Bullard was not only a war hero who fought for France in both World Wars, but he also saw success as a prize-fighting boxer, jazz musician, and nightclub owner before returning stateside in 1940.

Born in Columbus, Georgia, to a former slave, Bullard faced many instances of racism throughout his life, iHeart Radio’s podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class reports (Sept. 12 and Sept. 21 2022 episodes). In two of the most extreme cases, a drunk mob attempted to lynch his father when Bullard was a child and later, while Bullard was enlisted abroad, his brother was lynched. Despite his valor, he was continuously snubbed for promotions and honors during his military service and was rejected for air service by the United States, whose armed forces were still segregated until 1948. After several attempts to run away as a child, Bullard left home permanently when he was 11 years old, eventually making his way onto a ship bound for Europe. Per the National Air and Space Museum, Bullard was a slapstick performer and boxer prior to enlisting in the French Foreign Legion in 1914 at the start of World War I.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

During battle in December 1916, Bullard sustained a significant injury and enlisted in the French flying service while on leave, entering in November 1916. At the time of his enlisting, the United States military was not allowing Black pilots, and Bullard was the only Black pilot to fly in combat during World War I. Bullard gained a reputation, according to BlackPast, for his bravery during his time flying. He was known to have a pet monkey named Jimmy who toured with him, and his plane had an image of a heart with a dagger through it that read “tout le sang coule rouge,” translated to “all blood runs red.”

Between the World Wars, Bullard lived in Paris, earning French citizenship after being wounded in combat for them. He married Marcelle Straumann, but the couple later divorced. They had two surviving daughters, Jacqueline and Lolita.

Before attempting to rejoin his old unit at the start of World War II, Bullard had stints as a jazz drummer and a bar and nightclub owner — the establishments were called L’Escadrille and Le Grand Duc, respectively. He reportedly ran in the same circles as — and even employed, in some cases — the likes of Earnest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, and Langston Hughes. According to Stuff You Missed in History Class, Bullard also spied on Germans for the French intelligence service, but in 1939 he got shot in the abdomen by someone who misinterpreted his allegiances. Doctors did not think he would survive, but he was released from the hospital six days later.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At the beginning of World War II, Bullard was able to join a different unit of the French military, but three days after re-enlisting, he fractured a vertebra in an artillery shell explosion that killed 11 soldiers. Out of concern for his safety against the Nazis as a Black war hero, his commanding officer advised Bullard to get back to the United States. Injured and traveling a great distance by foot, Bullard managed to get from France to Spain with other refugees, and eventually made it to New York harbor on June 18, 1940; his daughters joined him a few months later.

He lived the rest of his life in Spanish Harlem but spent much time with the French community in lower Manhattan. Over the next two decades, the veteran worked with the Free France movement and France brought him back for several honors. It was in New York that Bullard took on another role: a Rockefeller Center elevator operator.

In 1959, he was made a knight by France’s Legion of Honor, and in 1960, he was invited as a VIP guest to meet French then-President Charles De Gaulle in New York. Bullard died the following year on October 12, 1961, of stomach cancer at the age of 66 and is buried in Flushing, Queens, wearing his military uniform. Although routinely ignored and rejected by the United States military during his years of active service, the Air Force posthumously promoted Bullard to Second Lieutenant in 1994, a rank that would have allowed him to fly in WWI if the US had allowed African-American combat pilots at the time.

A statue of Bullard was unveiled at the Museum of Aviation at Warner Robins Air Force Base in Georgia on what would have been his 125th birthday, and the ceremony was attended by family members, U.S. veterans, and French officials.


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